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Truly a best friend, dog alerts Detroit Lakes owner to burning house

SIERRA the German shepherd is one smart puppy: She may have helped save the life of a rural DL woman whose home was damaged in a Tuesday morning fire.

A rural Detroit Lakes woman is hugging her dog a little closer today after an early morning fire Tuesday.

Phyllis Leitheiser says she was laying in bed just before 7 a.m. when her five-year-old German Shepard, named Sierra, kept coming into her room trying to get her up.

"It was strange because my room is off limits to her -- she never comes in, but she came in four or five times and wouldn't leave me alone," said Leitheiser, who had gotten the dog a little over a year ago from her son, following her husband's death.

"She's been stuck to my side ever since," said Leitheiser, who lives alone in her house a few miles east of Detroit Lakes.

Sierra's strange behavior Tuesday morning was enough to get Leitheiser out of bed to see if there was something going on.

"That's when I realized the house was on fire," said Leitheiser, "so I ran outside and I could see the flames up on top of the house."

Leitheiser called 911, and firefighters from both Detroit Lakes and Frazee responded.

Even then, Leitheiser says the usually protective dog knew how to react.

"She always barks like crazy when people come to the door, but when the firemen came, not a peep -- it's like she knew what was going on."

According to the Detroit Lakes Fire Department, built-up material in the fireplace had blocked its ability to ventilate.

"Once you get all the creosote built up, it actually plugs the chimney and the heat can't get out" said Mark Olsen, a Detroit Lakes firefighter who was on the scene, "so what it does it just starts going out the side."

Olsen says some two-by-fours near the chimney caught on fire from the intense heat.

That fire then spread to the attic, complicating the fire a bit.

"With the insulation, it could build heat again and something could start back up," said Olsen.

It took firefighters a couple of hours to ensure the fire was out, as Leitheiser's son, Wayne (a volunteer firefighter who she says also responded to the fire) stayed to make sure the insulation didn't re-ignite.

Leitheiser didn't go up into the top level of her house Tuesday, "I just need one day," she said, sadly, adding that she's lived there for almost 57 years.

That meant a lot of memories were lost to the fire.

"After 57 years, there was a lot of stuff up there," said Leitheiser, "but it's nothing I can't live without. I think all the Christmas stuff went, though, so that's the hardest."

Now, as Leitheiser is left with the overwhelming thought of cleaning up and rebuilding, she's also recounting the moments she was in the burning house.

"I didn't smell any smoke, and I don't know why," said Leitheiser, "maybe because I was in here and don't really have a very good sense of smell anyway, but she (the dog) did -- she knew something was wrong."

There's no word yet on how much monetary damage was done to the house, but Leitheiser says she feels lucky to be alive and lucky to have her trusty companion.

"Yep, she's the girl," she said, petting her happy dog, "she's the girl."